Yesterday I forced the husband to accompany me to a 3D screening of Beauty and the Beast. There had been so much brouhaha (this is a word) about this live action, updated version of the old animated, Oscar winning classic that I felt it would almost be a cinematic sin not to fork out £14.90 (including 3D glasses) for a ticket. Now, even though the press and cast members kept referring to Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast as ancient, for me it’s as though a mere decade had passed (instead of nearly three) when I could be found watching B&TB on a loop in all its VHS glory. In fact we owned nearly every classic from the VHS era, when the Disney studios suddenly got their genius animation mojo back.
Unfortunately, when the sons reached adulthood, I chucked out the entire VHS collection which are now, much to the husband’s chagrin, going for an absolute mint on Ebay.
I booked us into my favourite movie theatre row (F), right in the middle, and found, to my delight, that by the time the film started the row of seats to my right was completely empty. The husband, however, was seated in the midst of a coach load of pre-pubescent girls and, behind him, a row of middle-aged, sweet-chomping women – the husband, in short, was in alpha male HELL.
However, the husband had a tried and tested remedy to his suffering and torment – he simply fell asleep occasionally, even during the very, very loud bits.
The first thing to say is that Emma Watson really cannot act. I’d hoped, going in, that Emma would prove me wrong, regarding her limited thespian abilities. I wanted her Belle to shine, to glow with all that fierce, feminist intelligence the Disney lot had been going on about. Instead I got Hermione, blathering on about books (like she always did) and registering the full gamut of emotions from A to B (like she always did.) Am I being cruel? I don’t think so, not when Ms Watson would have been paid handsomely for this role and has also taken a cut of the film’s takings. When you’re getting that rich (and when the rest of the working population has to do so much more for their hard earned dosh, whilst labouring under far less privilege) then the least you can do is sign up for acting classes.
Watching Belle/Emma was like watching some kind of weird human puppet. You could almost hear the Director shouting ‘Action!’ and see him pulling her strings, as Belle strolled around her boring little town, book in hand, hitting all the right marks and all the right notes but conveying absolutely no emotion. The strange, doll-like, still canvas of her face was reflected in the singing. We knew Belle was warbling about really, really wanting to get away from the backwards, thick idiots in her home town but Watson sounded like a little church chorister, all perfect pitch and sweetness and light but no grit and absolutely no real feeling.
Of course, Emma Watson is beautiful and thin, two of the requirements when you’re casting a character whose name means ‘beautiful’ (and also thin, since the two tend to go together when you’re in Hollywood.) But since this was supposed to be a more heftily feminist re-imagining of the original, methinks they should really have taken the appearance isn’t everything motif and really run with it. For instance, why not cast Rebel Wilson as Belle? She can sing; she comes replete with a powerful feminist-type personality; she’s beautiful – but wait, she’s FAT with an unfortunate line in sassy backchat – maybe Disney have a way to go before truly embracing the appearance isn’t everything thing. We accept that the Prince can look like a gigantic shaggy wildebeest, in a perpetually bad mood, with a serious rose obsession, but our heroine must remain calm, genteel, accommodating and, above all, pretty (and stick thin.) If that’s sending out a feminist message, then someone got their politically correct wires crossed.
I’d have liked to see Alicia Vikander in the role (emotion radiating from every pore) but maybe she was a touch too Scandinavian – anyway, what I got was Emma Watson so I had to make do.
The Beast was Dan Stevens (making good use of his startling blue eyes) walking about on 10” high stilts and a 40 lb body suit, which was later CGI’d out. The CGI was, of course, stunning and beautiful and amazing. So realistic that, very unexpectedly, an indefinable something was lost in translation. I don’t understand why, but the charm and comedic elements embodied in the original hand drawn/cgi household objects were almost completely lost in this version’s actual, proper looking, french’ified antique furniture. This was very evident in the case of Lumiere. Maybe it was the fact that his candlestick face was so tiny. For animation to truly work you tend to need large, appealing eyes; open, easily seen facial features and, above all, an artistic simplicity. The same could be said for Cogsworth, the clock. Too many realistic clockwork features getting in the way of the spoken words. And all this intense, intricate CGI realism really got in the way of their biggest musical number ‘Be our Guest.’ Maybe the colour palette used was too dark, maybe there was too much busy Busby Berkely type confusion going on, maybe Emma Watson didn’t look anywhere near as entranced or as amazed as she should have, but ‘Be our Guest,’ very nearly failed – saved only by Ewan McGregor’s dulcet, but dodgily French, vocal chords.
Surprisingly, the saving grace of this live action remake (apart from the stunning sets) was the villain of the piece – Luke Evans as Gaston. Luke Evans, totally over the moon to be given a part in a musical, and moreover a film which his nieces and nephews could actually go and see, threw everything he’d got at the role of Gaston. His singing voice was superb. When he was around it didn’t matter that Ms Watson couldn’t act because Mr Evans more than picked up the slack, in fact he effortlessly stole every one of their scenes together. His Gaston went from stereotypical, almost laughable villain, to something much more real and threatening towards the end of the film. In fact, when he went plunging to his death, I almost cried out ‘why did you have to kill off the star of the show?!’ After all, hadn’t the Beast been just as vain and cruel as poor old Gaston before the Enchantress got her hands on him? The only difference being that the supposedly sweet and clever Belle wasn’t prepared to give Gaston a chance – maybe because he didn’t live in a gigantic castle absolutely stuffed with gold.
Which is another note of hypocrisy hidden within this tale as old as time. It’s OK to be horrible to wrinkled old ladies, and to waltz around with umpteen vacuous, pretty young women, and to preen yourself in the mirror, as long as you’re a Prince and can offer your feminist girlfriend a life of luxury, where she doesn’t have to put any of her annoying feminist theories into practice.
And what did mark Belle out as a feminist? That she could read? The implication being that women weren’t allowed to read, or didn’t want to read? At the time (17th century) most working/poor men couldn’t read either. The only people who were 100% literate were the rich (and that included rich women.) The illiteracy of your average woman at the time had nothing to do with gender and everything to do with class/wealth. And your average present day feminist would have loved living in Belle’s backward times, considering that women had to do as much back breaking work as the men. They helped out on farms, they kept bees, they spun wool, they baked, brewed beer, sold food in the streets, made candles, learned a bit about medicine in order to treat family illnesses. In fact absolutely none of them had time to go swanning around the local town, book in hand, moaning about how boring and thick the local yokels were.
I forgot; further testament to Belle’s feminism was that she invented some kind of weird washing machine, which only meant she could further sit around doing nothing except read her books – just like your average non-working, non-feminist housewife in fact.
No, Belle, in this version, was not a particularly attractive character, more of a whiner really very much lacking in pizzazz. And let’s not leave out the fact that bestiality seems to be what got this prim and proper feminist Miss going. Why, when the handsome young prince is finally revealed, Belle begs him to grow a beard just so she can continue to get her animal kicks, one presumes.
LeFou was also a major let down. I love Josh Gad. For me Josh Gad can do no wrong, except when he’s directed by the gay Bill Condon who’s determined to inject some gayness into his Disney remake. Yes, of course, let the prospectively gay kids out there know that it’s A OK to be Gay, but don’t do it at the expense of Josh Gad losing ALL his Josh Gadness. Gad’s LeFou was quietly camp in his adoration of Gaston (and we should all, frankly, kneel in gay-like adoration of Gaston) but his character twist meant that Josh Gad really had to rein it in acting-wise, meaning that LeFou became almost invisible up there on the screen, barely saying a word. In fact, ANYONE could have played LeFou for all the screen time Gad was allowed. There was an attempt at sophisticated comic banter, at the expense of Gaston, which would have gone way over the heads of any kids, but that also didn’t really work in context, sort of falling very flat. Poor Josh Gad, I kept thinking, couldn’t they have given him something better to do?
Finally, the musical numbers were lovely, except the two new songs which went in one ear and out the other, although Dan Stevens managed to inject some fine emotion into his beastly solo. But even these set pieces felt strangely ‘tagged’ on to the conversations that came in between. When a musical is done right, the talking moments should flow seamlessly into the singing moments, but here it was as though everything would periodically suddenly stop and we were jolted suddenly into film musical territory.
Despite these misgivings, I’ll be buying the DVD when it comes out just so I can see the sets and the CGI in all their detailed and colourful glory – the film version we saw at the local flicks was very dark and a lot of the backgrounds in the castle rooms looked indistinct at times.
The husband’s opinion, on the way home, was that he’d had a very welcome opportunity to catch up on some much needed nap time and that the bits he’d managed to stay awake for were: ‘very boring,’ ‘a bit gay’ and he ‘could have done without the singing.’